Volume 45 Number 3
From the Ground Up: Look Under Your Feet for Future Opportunities
GARDEN CITY, Kan.—The sun spun through the broad prairie sky, day after day after merciless day. The corn wilted. The soybeans withered. Those farmers who had wells drew on them day and night, spraying each parched field with 300, 400, 500 gallons of water a minute—every minute, around the clock, for months. All that water scarcely dampened the soil. Most evaporated before it hit the ground.
—Stephanie Simon, L.A. Times, Sept. 11, 2002
Summary: Droughts like last summer's, to which the above news clipping refers, remind us as to the limits of our resources. Contrary to popular belief, though, water is not scarce. In fact, it's in great abundance across all continents. Getting to the water is another matter altogether—as is what the quality of that water will be. A simple but often overlooked solution to the problem may one of the keys that holds our survival in the balance—groundwater.
Although floods are more prevalent and responsible for tens of millions of lives lost in the past century, drought is by far the most devastating natural disaster. Without water, crops die, cattle die, economies die and people die. Even when rains come, recovery can take decades. I believe the ultimate natural disaster will come from starvation—caused by drought.
Most of us who grew up in a northern climate will recall stories told by our parents about how much colder the winters were when they were kids. Our grandparents told the same stories to them. The Presque Isle Stream (Maine)—where I skated during the winter months as a teen—doesn’t even freeze over these days.
One thing you’ve got to love about Mother Nature is that, except for earthquakes and hurricanes, she doesn’t move very quickly. Changes are often so slow they pass unnoticed until compared on a generation-to-generation scale.
Still, a United Nations climate science panel announced last year that worldwide temperature averages could climb as much as 10°F over the next century. This observation was generally confirmed by other reliable studies. Weather and climate, and corresponding floods and drought, are driven by uneven global heating. Our weather will worsen as the extremes widen.
Due to this global warming or climatic cycling, from Canada to Mexico, along the western seaboard of the United States, scientists are predicting available water supplies will drop by 30 percent by the year 2050, irrespective of population demands. The physics are simple—higher temperatures mean there's more rain than snow. Snowmelt is what keeps the rivers flowing during the summer months. Flowing rivers is what grows our food.
KABUL, Afghanistan—A four-year drought in Afghanistan has wiped out more than 80 percent of the cattle, sheep and goats in the north of the country. Officials have warned that the drought poses a serious threat to the country’s meat supply.
Associated Press—The World (2002)
Fresh water accounts for only 2.8 percent of the Earth’s total supply and three-quarters of that is ice, locked in the polar caps. Nonetheless, fresh liquid water is still available to the tune of 420 million gallons per person.
Where is the fresh water?
As I’ve said many times before, there's plenty of water. What we lack is the proper distribution system and a proper system of government priorities. But wait! If all of this water we see only accounts for 2.5 percent of the total fresh liquid water, where is the rest? Look down, as 97.5 percent of all free flowing fresh water is under foot. It’s groundwater.
Yes, desalination is another option growing increasingly more affordable. But think. The Earth’s crust consists of a layer of solid rock resting on a molten core. That mass of rock is irregular with peaks and valleys. Over time and as the peaks wore down and became rearranged by wind and rain, those valleys filled with sediment and debris and eventually gave us a fairly flat land mass. Just beneath our feet there are 250,000 gallons of fresh water for every square foot of the Earth’s surface. As incredible as it sounds, that’s over 33,000 acre feet of water per acre of land—more water than man has consumed since he first walked on the planet. Might groundwater be the source of the future?
How much is enough?
Mining untapped resources
Excess river waters can be stored underground as groundwater. A recent plan proposed in California (the Cadiz water storage project) suggested that 1.5 million acre feet of surplus Colorado River water be siphoned off and stored beneath the desert floor for use in dry years. The cost for this is about $100 per acre foot. Evaporative losses are minimal and the storage is “free.” Believe it or not, this plan makes more sense than the continued construction of dams. The plan was shot down, however, on the basis that it might do environmental harm to the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Desert is also used for bombing runs by the U.S. military. Again, it’s a question of priorities.
About the author
FYI—World Water Resources
Here are a few websites you can peruse to learn more about the world’s water: